The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: Shatterzone

This is a review of the Shatterzone "classic reprint" hardcover edition, published by Precis Intermedia. It was designed (in the original edition) by Ed Stark.

Shatterzone was a classic '90s RPG, one of my favorite sci-fi games of the era. I should note that this edition is a reprint, and thus the content is identical to that of the original Shatterzone box set, only combining the original three books of that box set into one single hardcover volume. The only thing missing from the original set is the "Masterdeck" card deck. That's a bit of an issue, given that the deck is a part of the system, but it's actually a part that can be removed from the system without major issues save one (that the cards are the default system for determining which side gets initiative in a combat round; but obviously one could substitute that method with another, even just a basic opposed die roll, though Precis has an option of their own on their website).
In any case, the masterdeck is available as a separate product from Precis.

Shatterzone is not a fancy game. Honestly, it doesn't really introduce anything new to sci-fi.  It didn't introduce anything new to sci-fi 20 years ago, much less now. But it is a solid sort of sci-fi game with a solid sort of world. When I ran it, sometime in the mid/late-90s, my campaign was a sort of "Blakes 7" affair, which is just right for Shatterzone. Of course, there's a lot of other stuff you can do with it; it's good for most semi-hard-sci-fi adventuring that isn't too shiny (it has that 90s-style "grittiness" that today seems almost twee and naive), and doesn't have magic or jedi powers (though it does have psionics).

The new book uses all the same style and all the same art (as far as I can tell) as the original set. This features a full-color cover with some tough-looking guys in space-suits/armor in the middle of laser-weapon firefight (with one guy being blown to smithereens). The interior art is also a lot of nice black & white sci-fi art with that 90s-style of gritty grunginess, like all of outer space was just a bit run down and dirty.

The basic default setting of Shatterzone is in a human-dominated interstellar "Consortium". Humanity has expanded into countless systems, largely pushed by migrants looking for better lives and Megacorporations (because what 1990s game didn't have Megacorporations?) looking to make profit.  The implication is that the core worlds, the Consortium, the Fleet (the Consortium's armed forces), and the Megacorps all work to keep people moderately repressed in a cyberpunk-style of not-quite-dystopia. But there's plenty of ways for freebooters to end up making profit for themselves, and potential rebellions to join, and then there's the Shatterzone itself.  In true 1990s pseudo-science, the Shatterzone is an enormous area of space in the frontier of human space where "dark matter and regular matter collide", creating an unstable region like a "river in space" that is extremely difficult to navigate, but that contains all kinds of undiscovered wealth and ancient secrets. And on the other side of the Shatterzone, there's a very powerful and hostile alien empire that looks set up to launch an apocalyptic war with humanity.  Good stuff.

This being a reprint of a 1990s product by what was at the time a major publisher, Shatterzone's text does have an awful lot of newb-level "what is roleplaying/GMing/etc" nonsense, and "how to make an adventure" bullshit which ranges in terms of quality of advice from average to awful.  It also has a slightly smug (though nowhere near World-of-Darkness levels) sense of "look how awesome our game is" attitude, as if their innovations are remarkably better than other games. Shatterzone is not bad, in fact I like it a lot as I already stated, but there's nothing about it that is ground-breaking.

As for rules, being an OSR guy I'm obviously not a believer in the notion that older games are somehow inferior from newer ones, but I do also accept that throughout gaming history there were some general practices that fell in and out of favor, as some mechanics were tried and didn't catch on, or others were gradually replaced by mechanics that seemed to work more elegantly.  Shatterzone's system was actually a kind of 'second edition' of the system of an earlier RPG by the same company (TORG). So it did have the benefit of improving on errors that the earlier (much less playable) system had.

The fundamental resolution system of the game involves overcoming a difficulty number (the number for an "average" check is 9). To beat this number you add together your ability score and your skill bonus (if you have one), and potentially any bonuses or penalties. Then you roll 2d10 (adding rolls together, not percentage), but this roll is NOT added to your base value; rather, it is checked on a table which generates a bonus or penalty to your total.  A roll of 8 is a -1, a 9-10 is 0, an 11-12 is +1, etc.
If you meet certain conditions (most notably if you have at least a +1 in the relevant skill) then you get to reroll a '10' on one of the dice and add it. If you have a skill specialization, you get to reroll ALL 10s, including from subsequent rolls. So the total die roll can range from 2 to infinity (the table to show your modifier goes to '45' on the roll for a bonus of +14, but the rules note that every five points above that total grants another +1). Whatever your bonus or penalty from the die roll, it's added or subtracted to the aforementioned ability+skill+modifier, to give you your final number. If you beat the difficulty number, you succeeded, but how much you succeed by is based on the difference between the two values. There's a couple of tables in for that too: one is the "push" table, which indicates the result of that difference in terms of grades of success, power, or speed (so if you beat your DN by 4 points that's an "average" success, while beating it by 10 is a "superior" success; or if you were trying to increase speed to get away a difference of 4 would grant you a +1 to your normal speed value, while a difference of 10 would grant you a +2 to your normal speed. Pushing your strength or speed in this way gives you certain amounts of "shock" damage from the strain.

The other table is the interactions table, which tells you what kind of result your attempt gave you in terms of various interactions like doing damage, interrogations, intimidation, taunting or tricking enemies, charming people or maneuvers. The combat column gives specific results (so a difference of 4 generates "knockdown O3" damage) while the other tables give you more general results (so a difference of 4 to "persuasion" is a result of "neutral", meaning you'd persuade someone who was neutral or friendly with regard to what you're trying to persuade people about, but not someone who was hostile or an enemy).

In combat, attack rolls are handled as above, rolled against a specific skill value of his target for resistance. So for example, if you're attacking with martial arts, your DC is your opponent's martial arts or unarmed or melee combat skills, or just his Agility if he has none of the above. Many weapons, including guns/lasers/etc, have a base damage value which is then added to the result difference of the attack roll and then subtracted from the target's toughness (which can include armor, etc).  On the other hand, melee and unarmed attacks have a value which is added to the PC's strength, and that result is then compared to the target's toughness as before; however, there are limits to how much melee weapons can add to your strength. The final difference determines how much harm was done. Resulting damage can include the character being knocked out, or taking different levels of wounds up to the point of dying. Being wounded causes penalties to actions based on the severity of the wound. Characters might also take shock points, which can (if accumulated) lead to unconsciousness as well.

Characters can choose to actively defend themselves as well, though that takes up an action to do. Active defense simply means that instead of using the static number for their defense, the defender will roll the dice and add that to his defensive value.

The rules include considerable combat modifiers and special circumstances, as well as detailed guidelines for handling things like persuasion/intimidation etc. The combat rules include optional rules for hit locations and targeted shots, suppressive fire, and surprise.

I should also mention the Life Point mechanics. "Life points" are both XP and special action points. Starting characters usually begin with 5 life points, and gain more as they complete adventures.  In between adventures characters can exchange life points to get skill points to improve their characters, but during gameplay they could also sacrifice life points to get special benefits. He can spend a life point to reroll a check (and that reroll will allow him to reroll both dice on event of a 10, as if he was specialized in the action being attempted); a life point can also be spent to cancel someone else's attempt at a reroll!  Likewise, it can be spent to reduce up to three levels of damage, or to shift the results of certain actions to a more positive outcome.

The next chapter brings up the card deck, and we should dedicate some time to that, since it doesn't come with the book. You can get the card deck as a separate product from Precis. In the standard rules, each player gets some cards they can play at certain times to get certain bonuses. Some of them give straightforward bonuses to certain skills, others can act as substitute life points, some can allow you extra actions, or create special effects, assist allies (or betray the party!), give people a reroll, etc. Others are 'subplot' cards which the player can use at the start of the adventure (if the GM allows it) to introduce some kind of personal situation for that character in the adventure. For example, the PC might have a 'personal stake' in something going on in the session, or might have a useful connection, a mistaken identity, or play the "martyr" card which gives the PC a bunch of extra life points but means that at some point in the adventure the PC must heroically sacrifice his life! There are also some odd wild cards that introduce other unexpected events that can affect the whole adventure.

As mentioned above, the cards are also used for determining initiative in each encounter, as well as unusual effects that can happen.  So the question is just how important are the cards?  Well, if you like that kind of stuff, the cards add a lot of unexpected little bonuses or penalties, sudden stuff happening, or plot twists. In small doses, that can be a good thing. In large doses, it might be too much, making for combats that seem full of weird turns. If you don't use the cards, all that happens is that Shatterzone becomes a much more typical sci-fi game (aside from sorting the initiative bit out).

The rulebook also has sections on ships (with many ships statted out) and space combat. Also, a section on "how to design adventures" that isn't strictly necessary to anyone other than beginners.

Only now are we at the second-third of the book, the player's guide. And only here do we start to get to rules about how to make a character.  First of all, there's a set of character templates provided, which only need a tiny bit of filling-in to complete. Among these are archetypes like the "old scout", "corp marine", "kestarian temptress", "megacorp freelancer", "hard warrior", "trader", "con artist", "cyberchopper", "bolter refugee", "pilot", "man from Intel", "mercenary" and a few others.  There's a mix of human and alien characters.

The other option is creating characters from scratch.  By this method, you would start by rolling on a random table to see how many points you have to distribute among attributes and how many for skills. After that, the distribution itself is point-buy, which is not really my favorite method. I don't really remember how I ran it at the time, but if I were playing this today, I'd probably have people work with the pre-made archetypes, adjusting to taste.

The player's guide leads you through the attributes and then selecting skills and skill specializations, as well as the other details of the character sheet, like Toughness and Life Points. The skill list is tied to the attributes, and is fairly large. After this, there's also advantages and disadvantages (here called "compensations"). Sample advantages can include being an alien (which includes mutants and the like), or a psychic, or things like having money or contacts, cybernetics, or equipment or fame. Disadvantages include things like being very old, very young, anti-alien prejudice, alien weaknesses, physical handicaps, mental issues, debt, a criminal past, being wanted, etc.
The advice given is for players not to just look at the point values and try to min-max it out, but rather to go with a holistic perspective of what you imagine the character to be, and then picking advantages and disadvantages to fit that. Which is a really great idea, IF your GM enforces that. This is the typical flaw of non-random advantages and disadvantages.

After this we get some typical advice for players, and a repeat of some of the basic rules in the previous 'book'.

The section on psionics is new information, explaining that psionics are very badly looked at in the Consortium. Psionics works as a skill, but using psionic powers runs the risk of injury from strain. There's a list of psionic powers, with the note that the GM can decide whether any given power exists in his campaign.

The last 96 pages of the book make up the "Universe Guide". It explains that a great deal of the space in Shatterzone is unexplored "wilderness" filled with risks and possibilities.  The Core Worlds of the Consortium are very stable but rife with intrigue. The Near Colonies and Inner Frontier are more lawless and filled with potential for rebellion, the frontier also features a large number of "bolters" (aliens who have crossed out of the Shatterzone into human space, as refugees). And then the Shatterzone is pure wilderland; incredibly tricky to navigate, filled with dangers and the unknown.

Medicine is highly advanced, from the point of view of what the mid-90s defined as "highly advanced", which is mainly cyberpunk stuff and low grade genetic engineering (to create super-marines etc).
The Consortium is kind of confederation, a political bureaucracy which is composed of various interest groups.  Individual worlds of the Consortium will have their own local governments, which might vary significantly in political structure.
There's examples of "futuristic" slang, which is what you'd expect of '90s sci-fi. In other words, awful. Luckily, it's limited to a sidebar and not permeating the entire book like some other RPGs of the era.

The Shatterzone obviously gets its own chapter, with guidelines to who can be found there, how to navigate through it, and the various risks it poses to explorers.
The Fleet also gets its own chapter. It's actually autonomous, working with both the Consortium and the megacorps but with its own authority. Details are provided as to the structure of the Fleet's bureaucracy and sample stats for typical Fleet fighter pilots, marines, special forces, intelligence officers ("Intel"), security, and scouts (as well as privateers). The Fleet can be the people a PC party works for, or the pigs that keep the PC party down and present a threat to their profit potential.

Megacorps also get their own chapter, because what 1990s game would be complete with out selfish/evil megacorporations? Obviously, they can be both patrons or opponents for the PCs. The most important Megacorps of the setting are given their own write-ups.

Aliens get their own chapter too.  Some of the most common aliens include the Glahn (who are a big blue-skinned klingon-substitute warrior-race), the Ishantra (who are the weirdo aliens who do all kinds of advanced genetic manipulation), the Armagons (the big bad-guy aliens from the other side of the Shatterzone that are an existential threat to humanity), the Yithra (who are tough plantmen, long before Groot came along), the Kestarians (barbaric golden-skinned aliens with four arms whose women are gorgeous and can make men fall in love with them), the Rednas (goofy lizard aliens prone to social faux pas), the Veronians (shapeshifting aliens who are very skilled at technology), and the Reavers (psychotic warrior-aliens from the other side of the Shatterzone who make the regular fake-Klingon Glahn look like pussies by comparison).

The chapter on planets presents a few sample planets, complete with adventure hooks, from different areas of known space. Then there's some very short guidelines for making up your own planets. This is followed up by a chapter on the "Xenos sector", which outlines an entire sector of six systems which is right at the edge of the Shatterzone. Worlds, locations, groups and an adventure are all provided to set up this sector as a potential starting area for a campaign.

Finally we get to the Equipment chapter, which includes weapons and armor, cybertech (and yes, too much cybernetics can give you "cyberpsychosis"), drugs, vehicles, miscellaneous gear, and some alien devices. There's handy equipment reference tables at the end, as well as an index, a shitload of system reference charts, and a character sheet.

So to conclude: does Shatterzone hold up as a game? Does the setting make for fun nostalgia, or does it also hold up as a setting? Or none of the above?

I think that in its own day and age, Shatterzone was a largely overlooked gem of a Sci-fi RPG. I was lucky enough to have seen it, and ran it, and have very fond memories (which I'll admit might be affecting my review quality).  I think that now, 20 years later (more or less), you have a game that can be really ideal for running a "90s sci-fi RPG". It could also work as a 'reboot', in a newer, grittier version that doesn't star Bruce Boxleitner and does a newer more mature take on the issues the setting brings up but deals with in the naively simple ways we all had back then.

The system was decent in its own time and is still OK now (if using some things that are slightly out of fashion today). The card deck is gimmicky but was at least a gimmick that sort of worked, though you don't really need to get it.

Can Shatterzone do anything that Traveller can't? No, not really. But something about the feel of it is different, much like either are very different from a 2010s game like Mindjammer.  There's both sci-fi elements and mechanical elements that mark each as products of their era.  Shatterzone is in some ways more cynical than what came before it (and Shatterzone was definitely a WAY better game than "Traveller: the New Era" which came out around the same time), while being so much more unintentionally innocent than the sci-fi settings that followed. Not so much in spite of the grungy space armor and the fake slang and the evil megacorps as because of those things.

If you approach it with that in mind, it's pretty good.  And if you lived through the era, then cracking open this rulebook means you're suddenly in your 20s again, and that's really good.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade


  1. Thanks for the review. Just a correction: the hardcover comes with a PDF that also includes MasterDeck cards that can be printed.

    1. Ah, ok! Since I was reviewing the text alone, I had no idea about that. That sounds like a very sensible policy to me.

  2. I loved Shatterzone's setting and fluff (same with TORG) but the TORG/Shatterzone 2d10 system just didn't appeal to me after playing in both games in the late 90s and GMing Shatterzone once. I grok it and its proto-Bennie system with Life Points, but the real killer for me was the wonky shock damage K/O and wound damage resolution system. I did love the Interaction Table which had things like Player's Choice on it at the higher levels for noncombat actions. The Initiative and Action Cards Masterdeck is also like a proto-Savage Worlds Action/Adventure Deck except that both of them are on each card. All the Pcs or Enemies going at the same time though tended to make combats quick or grueling depending on who went first.

    As for Initiative without the cards, could just be Agility in terms of fastest to slowest with ties as simultaneous actions. Or add the 2d10 as a randomizer using the penalty/bonus chart to make it more random.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.